NMAAHC’s interactive gallery is host to a suite of beautifully-crafted experiences.
I recently had opportunity to take a guided tour of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. The museum is filled to capacity on a nearly daily basis, and timed admission tickets are released (and sell out) three months in advance, so I was grateful to get access as part of the SEGD Exhibition and Experience Design conference.
The museum is enormous, filled with detail, beauty, and meaning. I’m not going to review it here, because it’s simply too much, and its traditional approach to museography is far from my specialty in digital interactive design.
In fact, there’s scarce interactivity, digital, tactile, or otherwise, on display here. A few touchtables throughout the galleries let visitors browse photos and collection objects. The music galleries feature a nicely-made virtual studio that invites visitors to mix and compare beats and harmonies from different genres. Most prominently (and quite successfully), the Lunch Counter interactive in the history galleries presents “what-would-you-do” storylines that challenge visitors to engage with the hard choices made by activists in the civil rights era.
But tucked away on the second floor, almost as an afterthought, is the Explore More! gallery. The name makes it sound more like an educational resource than an exhibition, and in fact, it’s located in the Target Learning Center (a step up from the Walmart Welcome Center in the lobby). Here, a series of large-scale, multi-user interactive installations invite visitors to actively engage with, and participate in, the museum’s stories and content. And for the most part, they are impeccably done.
At the back wall of the gallery is “The Arc,” a large touch-wall featuring a visual catalog of collection objects. The thematic arrangement of elements was nicely done, but I would have liked to see more content here; there are a handful of objects from each of 20-30 categories, but it’s a tiny fraction of the collection and much of it is prominently on display in the other galleries. The interface looks great, but its organic gestural controls could use some finessing; on multiple occasions, I accidentally swiped the content I was seeking right off the screen.
Nearby, “Join the Step Show” is a Kinect-based activity staged in front of a video wall; a virtual instructor on the central screen explains the dance moves, and visitor motion is reflected back in stylized avatars on the left and right. The media is beautifully crafted, and participants seemed to be having a great time. The small detail of repeating each visitor’s avatar multiple times creates the illusion of a larger dancing ensemble, which really helps to contextualize step dancing as a social rather than individual activity.
A cluster of touch tables forms another activity station, this one dedicated to the wreck of the São José slave ship, a Portuguese vessel that sank in 1974 near Cape Town. Step by step, visitors scan the ocean floor for metal, dig up an artifact, perform x-ray scans, and then search historical records for clues to its origins. I’ve seen this type of interactive before, usually as a virtual dinosaur dig, but this one managed to be both more intuitive and more complex than most. I managed to feel challenged by the activity without being frustrated, and I appreciated the museum’s effort to connect this STEM-based activity to the history exhibition a few floors down.
A less-successful experience here is a Google-sponsored 3D image browser. Using a touchscreen in front of a large videowall, visitors can select from a small collection of 3D-scanned virtual objects, which they can then rotate in three dimensional space to view details. The choice of objects didn’t seem well-matched to the technology; boots by Geoffrey Holder from the Broadway musical The Wiz are beautifully designed, but I didn’t get any insight from the 3D view that I couldn’t have garnered from seeing the actual object, or even a 2-D photograph. I got the impression that this might have been something Google donated to the museum, but developed on their own without collaborating with the museum’s exhibition or education teams; it seemed out of place among the other, more richly developed experiences.
The most visible, and arguably most acclaimed of the exhibits is the MUSE-Award-winning “Follow the Green Book” interactive. Seated in a cutaway vintage automobile, visitors are presented with the story of the Green Book, a Jim-Crow era travel guide that advised African Americans on safe routes and friendly vendors for cross-country trips.
In the installation, the vehicle’s windshield becomes a projection surface, immersing visitors in the sights and sounds of the era, while the dashboard becomes a touchscreen interface. Visitors make choices about routes to take, where to stop for gas, food, and lodging, and more. Through the windshield, they encounter people and places that treat them hospitably or with scorn. The experience hits all the right notes – it’s immersive setting and high production values make it a must-see attraction, and the interactive choices give visitors a sense of stake in what otherwise could have been a linear media experience. I only wish it had higher throughput!
Kudos to Cortina Productions, who designed and developed all the experiences described here (except for the Google interactive), and have been amply recognized with awards from THEA, SEGD, Communication Arts, and others.
Given the scope and scale of the museum and its stories, I found it a little surprising that there was so little interactivity in its most prominent galleries devoted to history, community, and culture. I imagine that will change as the museum grows and develops. Its obligations to history and its collection take precedence now, but I wonder how successfully younger visitors engage with and personalize the museum’s overwhelming content in the absence of interactivity. The Explore More! interactives are almost uniformly excellent; it would be great if these could be incorporated directly into the museum’s stories of history and culture, rather than serve as an easy-to-miss addendum.